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Eulogists at service recall Ford and convey her bipartisan message

Her contributions to women’s rights are remembered

Presidents and their wives, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, George H.W. and Barbara Bush, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, and Gerald and Betty Ford, attended President Nixon’s funeral in 1994 at his presidential library in Yorba Linda, Calif. Presidents and their wives, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, George H.W. and Barbara Bush, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, and Gerald and Betty Ford, attended President Nixon’s funeral in 1994 at his presidential library in Yorba Linda, Calif. (Gary Cameron/Reuters/File 1994)
By Jeff Wilson and John Rogers
Associated Press / July 13, 2011

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PALM DESERT, Calif. - First ladies, past and present, and others who called the White House home remembered Betty Ford yesterday, not just for her decades-long work against substance abuse but for her contributions to a political era when friendship among lawmakers helped them govern.

Speakers, including Rosalynn Carter, former first lady, and journalist Cokie Roberts, also hailed her as a force of nature whose boundless energy and enthusiasm, coupled with a steadfast determination to do what was right, pushed the country toward a commitment to equal rights for women and other causes.

Ford, who died at age 93 on Friday, reshaped the role of first lady with her plain-spoken candidness.

In doing so, she helped bring such previously taboo subjects as breast cancer into the public discussion as she openly discussed her own battle with the disease.

She was equally candid about her struggles with drug and alcohol abuse, and her spearheading of the creation of the Betty Ford Center to treat those diseases has benefited thousands.

“Millions of women are in her debt today and she was never afraid to speak the truth even about the most sensitive subjects, including her own struggle with alcohol and painkillers,’’ Carter said. “She got some criticism, but I thought she was wonderful and her honesty gave to others every single day.’’

Behind the scenes she was also aggressive and effective, said Roberts, who noted that Ford’s late husband, President Gerald R. Ford, had confided to her that his wife badgered him relentlessly into stronger public support of equal rights for women.

Betty Ford mapped out plans for her funeral well in advance, including who would deliver her eulogies, and Roberts said she told her to be sure to let people know that politics does not have to be as acrimonious as it is today.

“Mrs. Ford wanted me to remind everyone of the way things used to be in Washington, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she timed her death so she could deliver the message of comity when it was so badly needed,’’ she said as President George W. Bush, a Republican, sat in the audience next to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat.

Sitting in the same pew with them were Michelle Obama, Nancy Reagan, and Carter. Other mourners who packed the church included Ford’s four children.

Bush, accompanied by Nancy Reagan, arrived just a few minutes ahead of Obama and the others.

Bush chatted quietly with Reagan as they waited for the services to begin.

He greeted Clinton as she took a seat next to him.

“It’s very nice to see you getting together after the fact, but we wish some of you would get together beforehand,’’ Roberts said of those in the audience.

Other invited guests included President Nixon’s daughters, Tricia Nixon-Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower; President Johnson’s daughters, Lucie Baines Johnson and Lynda Bird Johnson Robb; and Robb’s husband, Charles, a former US senator.

Following the funeral, members of the public were invited to file past the casket and sign a guest book until midnight.

Today, Ford’s body will be flown to Grand Rapids, Mich., where another church service will feature remarks by Lynne Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney, former vice president, and historian Richard Norton Smith.

Barbara Bush was expected to attend that event.

Later tomorrow, Ford’s body will be interred at the presidential museum along with her husband on what would have been Gerald Ford’s 98th birthday.

Ford was thrust into the White House when Nixon resigned as president on Aug. 9, 1974, and her husband, then vice president, assumed the nation’s highest office.

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